Inside Politics

Feeling confident about the budget vote?

Could Harper's strong, stable, majority Conservative government be about to fall over the controversial budget implementation bill? 

"How the heck could that even be possible?" you may ask. "I thought we were done with this craziness when the majority was returned last year."

You're not wrong. We were done with it, to a certain extent.

But there was the Opposition House Leader Nathan Cullen last week, seeming to suggest that because the margin of this majority is small, even a brief bout of sleep-deprived slip-uppage on the government's part could bring everything crashing down for the Conservatives.

This week's report stage votes for the budget implementation legislation seem as good an excuse as any for a bit of a refresher course on the parliamentary convention of "confidence" as it pertains to the House of Commons.

Stephen Harper is the prime minister today because he leads the party that has the majority of seats in the House of Commons. (Previously, he was prime minister because his party had more seats than any other, although he did not command the majority.) As such, Canada's parliamentary system calls upon him to form a government, appoint a cabinet and generally run the floor.

Is there a way for this to change before the next federal election is held "on the third Monday of October in the fourth calendar year following polling day for the last general election" (in the words of our newish fixed voting date law) - or in other words, October 19, 2015?

In theory, yes. The Harper government could lose a "confidence" vote in the House of Commons, and feel obliged to resign.

We sometimes talk, or even act, as if there are rules about what constitutes a confidence vote. In fact, there's nothing enshrined anywhere.

Political convention has held in the past that confidence measures are any votes that have to do with:

  • The government's broad mandate or agenda (such as a vote on the Speech from the Throne - which, it should be said, often doesn't come to a vote in the Commons).
  • A budget, spending estimates or any other "money bill" that speaks broadly to the government's financial management.
  • A motion specifically expressing confidence or a lack thereof in the current government.

This "convention" is not a law, or even a firm rule.

Confidence matters, in practice, fall the way the government sees things. If, prior to a vote, the prime minister suggests that the subject at issue is so crucial to his government that it will consider the vote a matter of confidence, a confidence vote it shall be, by virtue of the government's self-identification.

Sometimes the confidence element is just assumed. A government that could not pass its budget (its plan for governing), would have difficulty continuing to implement its agenda. That's why budget votes are assumed to be confidence votes whether or not anyone says so explicitly.

A government could also consider any vote to be a confidence matter after the fact, were it to be sufficiently disappointed by the outcome and feel unable to carry on.

If the opposition, or the public for that matter, doesn't like what the government chooses to see as a confidence vote or what it does not, the only tool at their disposal is public opinion. This is particularly true in a majority government, where it's exceptionally rare for the government to lose priority votes.

This precedent may turn out to be relevant, depending on how things go this week, even though it is from a minority government situation:

In 1968, Lester Pearson was prime minister, presiding over a minority Liberal government. Pearson governed largely with the support of the NDP, but in February the Liberals unexpectedly lost a final Commons vote over an amendment to the Income Tax Act.

A strict reading of parliamentary convention would have suggested that vote was enough to trigger an election, because the change constituted a "money bill." But the Liberals were in the process of selecting a new leader, and Pearson gambled that no one really wanted an election right away.

Pearson went on television and told Canadians that his government would put a second vote before the House of Commons specifically asking whether or not his government continued to command the confidence of the House of Commons, rather than the merits or demerits of a tax change.

His gamble worked: his party won the second, more specific vote and carried on governing.

What does this mean for this week's expected budget bill vote-a-thon?

It may be a caution for anyone assuming that a middle-of-the-night head count error on the part of the government whip would be enough to end Harper's majority government.

If the Conservatives lose one or more votes during what's expected to be a lengthy - perhaps very lengthy - set of report stage amendments, it may not be time to pull out those lawn signs, just yet.

Citing the Pearson precedent, Harper could have his government bring a unique confidence motion specifically calling on the House of Commons to renew its confidence in the Conservative government, notwithstanding the lost vote on the budget bill amendment.

And there's no reason to think that would not pass, barring some kind of very unexpected backbencher revolt.

So, if a few Tory MPs wanted to send a more subtle message by supporting one or more budget amendments, in theory it need not trigger the dissolution of Harper's first majority.

However, it would be rather embarrassing for the Tories to lose any kind of vote on its budget implementation bill. 

The seriousness of a lost vote is entirely in the eye of the beholder. The parliamentary convention of confidence is based on political legitimacy.

That legitimacy could suffer some damage, even if the blow is not, ultimately, fatal. 

Call in the members! What happens next is up to them.


My thanks to Wednesdays with @Kady live chat participant pdhlondon, who pointed out the Pearson precedent during last week's conversation and inspired further research on my part.

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